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ZEMLINSKY RECORDINGS HELP ATONE FOR A HALF CENTURY OF NEGLECT

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ZEMLINSKY: Symphony in B flat major; Psalm 23. Ernst Senff Chamber Choir, Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, Riccardo Chailly conducting. London 421644-2 (CD).

ZEMLINSKY: The Four String Quartets. APOSTEL: String Quartet No. 1, Op. 7. LaSalle Quartet. Deutsche Grammophon 427421-2 (two CDs).Alexander Zemlinsky (or von Zemlinksy, as he is sometimes known) was born in 1871, in Vienna, and died in 1942, in Larchmont, N.Y. Between those years came a quarter century of neglect, to be followed by another, even from many who should have known better.

As a teacher, his students included Schoenberg, Korngold and Alma Mahler. As a composer, his music had the misfortune to fall between the late-19th century romanticism of Brahms and the 20th century modernism of the Second Viennese School, specifically the 12-tone experiments of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. Nevertheless as late as 1949 Schoenberg was claiming, "I owe everything I know about composing and its problems to Alexander Zemlinsky. I always thought he was a great composer, and I still think so. Perhaps his time will come sooner than one thinks."

If so, I suspect the folks at DG and London will be able to take some of the credit. The first did its duty seven years ago, by way of a three-LP set of the string quartets (here reissued on two mid-price CDs) and an ear-opening recording of the "Lyric Symphony," between them perhaps the strongest introduction to Zemlinsky's art.

Similarly the above-listed London CD comes as a followup to Chailly's 1987 recording of "Die Seejungfrau" ("The Mermaid"), a three-movement symphonic poem after Hans Christian Andersen whose fortunes may not have been enhanced by its having been premiered on the same program as Schoenberg's not-dissimilar "Pelleas and Melisande."

The Symphony in B flat major (sometimes called No. 2 but actually Zemlinsky's third) inhabits an earlier sound world, very post-Brucknerian for the most part but with a warmth seldom encountered in that composer. It may not be the most original work in the Zemlinsky canon, but, throughout, one is struck by his mastery and obvious love of beauty, something even more pronounced in the accompanying setting of the 23rd Psalm, which ascends the heights in a way strongly reminiscent of the Mahler Eighth.

This is, in short, gorgeous stuff, made all the more so by Chailly's almost excessively rich performance. (I have not heard the competing Seipenbusch recording, available from Records International.) I am afraid, however, that the choral diction turns the text of the Psalm into something of a verbal mishmash.

No less gorgeous is the First String Quartet (dating from 1896, a year before the symphony), an unashamedly romantic work with an occasionally Slavonic tinge (e.g., the ardently Dvorakian finale). But even here one senses a strongly individual impulse attempting to break free, and by the time of the Second Quartet, produced 18 years later, Zemlinsky had found it.

The result is a more obviously experimental work of near-atonal beauty and tension, clearly a precursor of Berg's "Lyric Suite" (which derives both its title and one of its themes from the "Lyric Symphony") yet itself indebted to Schoenberg, from whose "Transfigured Night" it similarly quotes. Like both, it is alternately impassioned and dreamlike. And if in the last two quartets the dream has become something of a nightmare, that is what one might have expected in the wake of World War I.

Witness the postwar disillusionment that flares up amid the lyricism of the Third Quartet, otherwise sparer and more economical. Likewise the darkly ruminative ache of No. 4, written in 1936 as a tribute to Berg, who had died the preceding December.

Amazingly the latter lay unperformed until 1967, something the insightful LaSalle reading does a lot to atone for. Still, it is the Second Quartet that comes across as the real masterpiece here, and given its renewed availability I cannot imagine why it does not figure more prominently on contemporary quartet programs.

Perhaps too many share the judgment of Alma Mahler, who felt that "notwithstanding many charming little ideas and a tremendous talent, Zemlinsky is not as great a composer as Schoenberg." Maybe not, but he does show us where Schoenberg might have gone had he not abandoned the idiom of "Gurre-Lieder" and "Pelleas" for the 12-tone row. And on this evidence I am impressed all the more by the enormity of the talent, and the neglect.

Like the Zemlinsky Fourth, the appended Hans Erich Apostel quartet is also a tribute to Berg, after whose death the composer left the work in its then-incomplete four-movement form. As such it makes an apt coupling for the Zemlinsky, in a performance of comparable probity. But oddly the notes in the enclosed DG booklet break off in mid-sentence, almost like the work itself.